Half of the World: Isfahan


In the wilderness about 200 miles south of Tehran is a place called “Half of the World.” Ishfahan, twice the capital of Persia, was the highlight of my journey to Iran in 2017. If Ishfahan is half the world, then Shiraz, even further south is the other half.

But to get to these cities of over a million persons each, it is necessary to negotiate the Zagros mountains, a range of rocky cathedrals of stones and rocks spanning about 990 miles from the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent ending at the Strait of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Although over-grazed and deforested, scattered valleys do nurture grains like wheat and barley, lentils, nuts like almond and pistachio, and fruit trees bearing apricot, plum, and pomegranate plus grape vines. Persian oak trees are the most important tree species on this western boundary of the Iranian plateau. The last asiatic lions known to roam the foothills were photographed in the mid-19th century.

The Zagros Mountain Range

Some sheep herding continues in the shadow of the Zagros

Reserves of petroleum are located in or near the southwestern foothills. Here mining resources have relatively direct access to world transportation hubs.

The city of Isfahan seems about a century away from the villages in the foothills. In a dry basin, still at over 5000 feet above sea level, lies what I believe is Iran’s premier center of art, music and culture. A Persian proverb said "Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast" (Isfahan is half of the world). Isfahan is a north–south and east–west hub crossing Iran, and was once one of the largest cities in the world. In the 16th and 17th centuries under the Safavid dynasty it became the capital of Persia for a second time.

The Naghsh-e Jahan Square (translated, “Image of the World”) in Isfahan is one of the largest city squares in the world. It has been rightfully designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. All of a person’s needs, spiritual and secular, are fulfilled in or near this accumulation of communal structures and gardens. Among the masterpieces of architecture are the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah, the Royal Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. At the north corner, the Grand Bazaar swallows up masses of shoppers. Oh, and the sun and its light shows in the sky overhead are a constant reminder of the intimate reverence for our planet's life that Persian artisans and clerics celebrate with the citizens of the city.

The 10th-century Persian historian Ibn al-Faqih wrote: "When the Jews emigrated from Jerusalem, fleeing from Nebuchadnezzar, they carried with them a sample of the water and soil of Jerusalem. They did not settle down anywhere or in any city without examining the water and the soil of each place. They did all along until they reached the city of Isfahan. There they rested, examined the water and soil and found that both resembled Jerusalem. Upon they settled there, cultivated the soil, raised children and grandchildren, and today the name of this settlement is Yahudia.” Ishafan is a haven for several religions to this day.

Shrine Lotfollah

When I arrived in late September 2017, the river running through the city was dry. However, the streets were flooded with life and sunlight and shade, and fragrance of the gardens, and a rich cultural life elevated by paintings and music and mosques and minarets. But of course there also was traffic, lots of it.

On the eastern side of the square, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, completed in 1619, was built by the chief architect Shaykh Bahai, during the reign of Shah Abbas I of Persia. The mosque was rebuilt and repaired in the 1920s under the tutelage of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Unlike the public Shah Mosque (or Royal Mosque), standing on the south side of the square, Lotfollah was intended as a private royal place of worship. It has been opened to the public.

The inscriptions on the dome is written by the famous calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi.

The city was taken by the Afghans in 1723 with much bloodshed and its status as the capital was bestowed on Shiraz. Following 200 years of relative peace, the Russians occupied Ishfahan in 1916. The plaudits for the extraordinary art and architectural heritage of the Image of the World belong to Shah Abbas.

To be continued.......... Ed

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© 2023 by Edgar David Boshart, edboshart@gmail.com

Arlington, Virginia, USA, 703-629-0160